Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blessed By An Elephant

Who knew an elephant could be so holy?

A few days ago (Isaac's birthday, one he shares with Alice Cooper...), our dear friend Gopal called us up with a tempting offer. It was the last morning of our visit to Coimbatore and Ooty, and he offered to take us to a temple before we caught the train at 1 PM back to Cochin. He picked us up in his teeny sedan around nine AM. The six of inhaled deeply and piled in for the 20 minute drive. Our destination was Aruligu Patteeswaraswamy Temple in Perur, on the outskirts of Coimbatore. This is a Shiva temple, and parts of it are over 2000 years old. There was a major expansion about 400 years ago. It is being constantly worked on and renovated, painted, and cleaned. Laurel and I are both suckers for ancient temples of all sorts. She does have her Masters in Religious Studies with a major in Hinduism after all! However, I was unprepared for the depth of beauty I was about to experience.

The exterior of the temple was completely covered in scaffolding and tarps, in much the same manner as a leaky condo gets wrapped while the workers repair the water damage and the owners try to track down the construction company to serve papers to. This was no leaky condo. All the sculpture on the exterior was being meticulously cleaned and repainted in an effort to reclaim its original ancient splendour. The entrance to the temple is made via 2 huge ornately carved wooden doors, each about 20 feet high. Signs immediately warned us that there was to be no photography under any circumstances.

After walking through the entrance hall, one is immediately confronted by the temple elephant. A temple elephant is apparently pretty standard issue in Hindu temples in the South of India. They are used to move the heavy carts laden with various idols on auspicious holy days throughout the year, and also to bless visitors and collect money. This was the first one I had ever seen in a temple, and it was a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

The elephant's forehead was smeared with sandalwood paste. Three horizontal lines that I believe are symbolic of Shiva's trident were painted on, indicating that the elephant was in fact a bona fide devotee of Shiva. The elephant stood on a rectangular bed of sand (for obvious reasons...), with it's handler by it's side. The elephant rocked back and forth, shifting it's weight from left to right constantly, looking for all the world like Bill Gates appearing before a Senate subcommittee. Gopal gently suggested that we make a small donation, either a rupee coin or ten rupee note, and in turn, we would be blessed by the elephant. Sounded good to me! I stood about 5 feet in front of the swinging trunk, and fished about in my coin purse. The elephant must have gotten a bit excited at the prospect of another donation, because it cleared its trunk in anticipation of my donation. As a result, I am now intimately familiar with the sensation of flying elephant snot as it settles on your skin.

After much fiddling, I found a 5 rupee coin and stepped towards the beast. It saw me coming. It reached out its trunk, and curved the end up so as to resemble an upturned palm. I placed my coin there, and instantly the trunk swung back to pass the coin to the elephant's handler. Assured that the donation had reached its destination, the mighty trunk swung back and stopped just over my head. Then, ever so gently, the trunk came down and rested momentarily on my head. I was blessed! Our normally outgoing boys were quite intimidated by the elephant, and declined the opportunity to get blessed in a similar fashion. Actually, it was all we could do to stop them from running away.

Gopal rejoined us after a brief disappearance and said that he had had a word with the temple authorities, and we had been granted the rare permission to take photos, as long as we did not take pictures of the sacred deities themselves. Wandering through the halls of the temple, I was struck by the construction and engineering of it all. 2000 years ago, 14 foot long chunks of rock were turned into ornately carved pillars, depicting events from the lives of the gods. These pillars were all lined up perfectly symmetrically, and were joined by more ornately carved stone joists, creating a ceiling structure that was perfectly level and square. The stones fit so tightly, that a knife blade would not fit between the joints. And that's after 2,000 years. Unbelievable engineering and craftsmanship. The other thing that struck me about this was just the vibe. I've been to Mayan temples, and the feeling was very different. These temples were not constructed by by a priest class using slave labour that was to be eventually sacrificed, they were built as acts of devotion. That feeling of joy and devotion here was palpable.

At the end of one of the halls, there was an inner sanctum that was chained off to the public. This room contained the main Shiva deity, as well as the statue of his consort Parvati. It was guarded by a priest, clad only in a lunghi and smeared with the same markings as those on the elephant. He blessed us by putting a little sandalwood paste on our foreheads. He asked Gopal where we were from, and Gopal explained. The priest's gaze softened. "Come", he said, and held up the chain for us to walk underneath. Surprisingly, we were led up the steps and into the inner sanctum of Shiva itself. He walked us slowly around the altar, pausing to show us how the the four columns holding the roof structure in the room had been carved with the top of each column leaning visibly and tilting towards the altar. It seems that even the building itself bows to Shiva out of respect. Later, Gopal told us that we had been the recipients of a very rare honour. "Good things happen to good people", he said. Surely, he wasn't talking about us....

There were hugs and many words of thanks to Gopal and his family as we departed for Cochin. The depth of Indian hospitality is unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and to us, Gopal is it's principal exponent. We left with promises to see each other soon, and we offered that his family was more than welcome to stay with us if they somehow managed to come to Canada for a visit. How fortunate we are to have found people this friendly and giving of their time. I think that the elephant blessing worked.

Now if only I can get this elephant snot stain out of my clothes...


jcree said...

Rob, everybody knows you just need a little saliva from a camel to remove elephant snot from clothing.
Now if the snot was in your hair, that would be an entirely different problem requiring other bodily fluids from a monkey.

Rob Bailey said...

Was that in "Hints From Heloise", or "Bomba The Jungle Boy"? Definitely want to avoid monkey fluids. Especially bonobos...